“Here’s the deal: Palin is the latest G.O.P. distraction,” Bob Herbertwrote in a New York Times op-edon Tuesday. “She’s meant to shift attention away from the real issueof this campaign–the awful state of the nation after eight years ofRepublican rule. The Republicans are brilliant at distractions.”

Herbert’s right on target. Barack Obama honed in on that point in Denver too, “If you don’t have any fresh ideas, then you use stale tactics to scare the voters. If you don’t have a record to run on, then you paint your opponent as someone people should run from. You make a big election about small things.”

On cue, Sarah Palin attempted to paint an absurd caricature of Obama inher speech at the Republican Convention last night: “What does heactually seek to accomplish, after he’s done turning back the waters andhealing the planet? The answer is to make government bigger … takemore of your money … give you more orders from Washington … and toreduce the strength of America in a dangerous world.”

More than anything, this election should be about the big issues of ourtime–ending a disastrous war, restoring America’s reputation in theworld and building an economy that works for more than just the very rich. The challenge for Democrats is to frame these issues in a way that connects with traditional American and progressive values, exposes Republicancallousness and extremism, and in doing so trumps the GOP’s politicalmarketing which cynically and cleverly plays on symbolism. As GeorgeLakoff wrote, “Just arguing the realities, the issues, the hard truths should beenough in times this bad, but the political mind and its response tosymbolism cannot be ignored….. Democrats, in addition, need to call anextremist an extremist: to shine a light on the shared anti-democraticideology of McCain and Palin, the same ideology shared by Bush andCheney. They share values antithetical to our democracy.”

In order to have a fighting chance after eight ruinous years of Bush,the Republicans need voters to lose sight of where we are as a nationand how Republican leadership got us there. We saw that with the GOP’spoliticization of Hurricane Gustav in an attempt to whitewash eight years of hostility to the notion of government’s role as a force for public good. We see it with theirhypocritical media-bashing. {Let’s not forget, as Bloomberg News’ AlHunt told the New York Times, “Probably no one in American politics overthe last twenty years has had a closer relationship with the nationalpress than John McCain.”} And we are seeing it again now. McCain’scampaign manager Rick Davis admitted as much – as The Nation‘sChristopher Hayes noted–when he said, “This election is not about issues. This election isabout a composite view of what people take away from these candidates.”

That’s exactly how Republicans win. Democrats can’t let them get awaywith it. So it was good to see Obama and Joe Biden both calling the Republicans out for the lack of attention being paid to the economy at the Republican Convention in St. Paul on Tuesday.

“You did not hear a single world about the economy,” Mr. Obama said.”Not once did they mention the hardships that people are going through.”

Harold Meyerson also wrote about the Republicans’ failure to address theeconomy at their convention in an op-ed in Wednesday’s Washington Post: “I have combed the schedule of events here without finding a single forum… devoted to what John McCain and the Republican Party propose to do about America’s short and long-term economic challenges…. For all these woes, McCain offers only a continuation of Bush’s tax cuts for the rich and an ideological bias toward the very kind of deregulation that has wrecked the housingmarket…. If the election is about the economy, they’re cooked – andtheir silence this week on nearly all things economic means that theyknow it.”

If the Republicans succeed in making this election about something otherthan the big issues, they are likely to win. If it’s about a likablewoman governor who can shoot a gun and field dress a moose, or achurchgoing commander of the Alaskan National Guard, they are likely towin. Or if they pull off the feat of making the reactionary right-wingMcCain-Palin ticket seem more “connected to the people” than Obama-Bidenwhose stance on the issues is in touch with millions of Americans whoseek a more active governmentin these economically squeezed times, then they are likely to win.

If voters really want real change, rather than Reality Politics TV-stylechange [sponsored by the Republicans and that darn elitist corporatemedia], here are some important facts to consider: since 1948, the economy has grown faster on average underDemocratic presidents than under Republicans; and income inequalitytrended “substantially upward under Republican presidents but slightlydownward under Democrats,” according to Princeton professor of politicalscience, Larry M. Bartels, author of Unequal Democracy.

These historical trends have serious implications for today’s challengesof increasing poverty, stagnating wages, and a greater concentration ofwealth than anytime since 1928.

In these next sixty-one days until the election, small-d democrats who arecommitted to forming a more perfect union will need to do everything wecan to stay focused on the big issues, expose Republican callousness andanti-democratic policies for what they are, and lay out the clear choicethat lies before us.